Arts: Why we go bananas about ... bananas
Tuesday 23 December 1997
Any other interviewee would take the chance to cry off sick, rearrange for another day, but there was simply no other window in a tight schedule.
We meet in a storage warehouse of a large supermarket chain somewhere off the M25. Now and then, vast logoed pantechnicons roar out of the parking bays, groaning with shrink-wrapped produce.
"Some of my chums are already continuing their onward journey. We like to stick together in bunches, but inevitably we get split up. A few of us are lucky enough to end up in the same milkshake, or tub of Body Shop lip balm. But normally when it comes the end is pretty lonely. Robert Maxwell did eat two of us just before he fell overboard. He was an exception, though. One banana is usually enough for most people."
I wouldn't normally be interviewing a banana, but there will never be a better peg. One of the BBC's gifts to the viewer on Christmas Eve is an arty Arena investigation into the meaning of the old fruit. "And not before time," says the banana.
Its accent has a strong whiff of the tropics. You'd never describe it as plummy. "We've waited a long time for this sort of recognition. That rotten apple has been the star fruit for way too long. One slip of the pen in Genesis and it thinks it's the apple of everyone's eye. You know that in ancient Indian texts, Eve tempts Adam with one of my ancestors. Read your Koran - it's all there."
With that thick skin, I hadn't expected the banana to bruise quite so easily. It's obsessed with its family tree - always a sign of insecurity. "I can trace my ancestry all the way back to China. The first European to taste a banana was Alexander the Great. We migrated west, but didn't get to the Americas till the 1600s."
Once they met, America and the banana were made for each other. America was busy expanding, and the banana took advantage of unrivalled opportunities to get itself noticed. It has become by some distance the hardest-working fruit in showbusiness.
One of its first bookings was on the head of Carmen Miranda. Walt Disney cast a treeful of bananas a key non-speaking costume role in The Jungle Book. Woody Allen named a whole film after a bunch of them. As the Banana Splits and Bananas in Pyjamas, the curvy fruit made it big in children's television.
"Yes, We Have No Bananas" is in the top 10 fruit hits. "Up there with 'Strawberry Fields'," says the banana.
"But my favourite is the cover of that Velvet Underground LP. It revolutionised sleeve design, you know. Cost a fortune to print. When you peeled back the skin there was the pink phallic-looking flesh of the banana underneath. A lot of us thought that was a bit tasteless, but you can't choose who you work with. Bananas actually have no gender, so to be seen as a symbol of masculine potency - well, the whole thing's gone a bit pear-shaped, hasn't it?
"It was Andy Warhol's idea, that album cover, and he couldn't even eat bananas. And as we say back home, anyone who doesn't like bananas must be bananas."
The phrase "to go bananas" is attributed in the Oxford English Dictionary to Liza Minnelli, who was asked why she had temporarily moved into a women's shelter in 1970 and replied, "I went bananas."
"At one point it looked certain that Minnelli was going to coin the phrase 'I went lychees', but we used our muscle within the industry to win the franchise. Sometimes it pays to be a bit bent. But why risk our image on a synonym for going wacko? You may ask. There's no such thing as bad publicity. That's why we tolerated the African dictator Canaan Banana. I mean, how many ruthless despots are called Winston Pineapple? It raises the profile no end."
The banana is the all-rounder among fruits. From masculinity to madness, it can be made to signify everything and nothing.
"For example, we still don't really understand why football fans began brandishing inflatable plastic bananas at matches. We think it says more about fans than fruit.
"We're more proud of our socio-political importance. Whole economies in Latin America depend on us. Ecuador and Honduras would collapse without the support of the banana. Ever heard of the cumquat republic? Thought not."
On the other side of the Berlin Wall, where East Germans came across bananas in the shops only during massed party rally season, the banana became a symbol of western affluence.
"Yes, we're huge behind the old Iron Curtain. We only reached Russia four years ago. Ivana Trump said only last week that she was tempted to marry a rich American for 'the cars, the houses and the bananas'. We didn't even have to pay her to say it.
"There's some German artist called Thomas Baumgartel who has made a career of spraying bananas on to gallery walls worldwide. He was once imprisoned for his belief that the banana is the ultimate symbol of democracy. The guy must be bananas ...
"But seriously, Germans consume an average of 15kg of bananas a year. The figures are slightly misleading because in a tough five-setter Boris Becker pushed the average way up on his own. Like I said, you just can't buy that sort of brand identity. Now Tim Henman is on the Becker diet. He's even doing a cookbook called The Fit Banana."
I ask the banana whether one of the recipes will be the infamous fried peanut butter and banana sandwich.
"Listen, we may have been one of the ingredients in Elvis Presley's last meal, but no one has ever pinned his death on us. It is far more likely to have been the peanuts. And we strenuously deny the conspiracy theory that Robert Maxwell fell in while vomiting the bananas over the side of the boat."
The banana and its travelling companions are about to be loaded on to a lorry. Time is running out.
Talk me through the old banana skin routine, I say. It may have been hilarious once, but surely not any more.
"Funny you should ask that. We never used to think so ourselves, but then last year your very own National Health Service released some alarming statistics. In 1995, 37 people were admitted to hospital as a result of banana-related accidents. Jeremy Irons was one of them. No doubt doing his bit to raise banana-skin awareness."
The neighbouring stack of crates is scooped up by a forklift truck. Any final thoughts before the banana slips off on to the motorway network?
"Yes. Very important: make sure you don't dream of bananas. It's bad luck."
Suddenly the banana is hoisted aloft towards the lorry's predatorial maw. "I forgot to tell you our motto," shouts the banana, its voice indistinct against the roar of engines. "Oranges are not the only fruit!"
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